Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: "Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it was withered away. Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into the good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." And he said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven." And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.
On the Sunday before Christmas my aim is to preach from 1 John 3 under the title, The Son of God Appeared to Destroy the Works of the Devil. In the three Sundays of Advent leading up to that message I want to talk about three typical works to the devil. If we have a sober awareness of some of Satan's most common works, we will appreciate Christmas all the more, because Christmas is a celebration of the truth that the Son of God came into the world to destroy the works of the devil.
The work of the devil that we will expose today is his opposition to the Word of God when that Word is preached. Satan takes away the Word of God from people's minds and hearts so that they cannot believe and be saved.
I will mention three ways that Satan takes the Word away and then three ways that we can counter attack.
Three Things at Stake in the Loss of the Word
But first we need to get clear what is at stake in the loss of the Word. Why does it matter if Satan takes the Word away from our hearts? It matters in three increasingly crucial ways.
If the word does not abide and take root in our heart, we cannot bear any fruit for God. Verse 20: "But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." The fruit Jesus has in mind here is probably what Paul called the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, etc. Only the abiding Word of God taking root in the heart of the believer can give rise to these spiritual traits.
Jesus prayed in John 17:17, "Father, sanctify them in the truth. Thy word is truth." The Word of God is the means used by the Holy Spirit to sanctify his people—to make them fruitful, or loving. So our holiness, our Christ-likeness, our moral newness is torpedoed if Satan takes the Word away from our hearts and minds.
A persistently fruitless hearer of the Word cannot be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said in Luke 6:43, "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its fruit." Fruit does not make a tree good. Fruit does not give life. Fruit is a sign of life and reality. Good and bad trees are known by their fruit. Bad fruit or no fruit means bad tree or no inner reality. Therefore fruitfulness is essential to being a true disciple of Jesus. And since the abiding Word is the key to fruitfulness, discipleship is at stake if Satan takes the Word away.
Which is what Jesus said in John 8:31, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples." If the Word is taken away from our hearts, we cannot be followers of Jesus.
3. SalvationWhich leads us to the final and most fearful consequence of having the Word taken from our hearts. Jesus says in John 15, "Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away . . . If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." Ultimately what is at stake if Satan takes away the Word of God is our salvation. Without the Word of God abiding and taking root in our heart we cannot bear fruit, be disciples, or inherit eternal life.
So it matters more than words can express that we not be among those who hear the Word and lose it to the work of Satan.
Three Strategies of Satan to Take the Word Away
How does he try to take it from those who hear?
When Jesus interprets the parable of the soils in Mark 4:14–20, he only refers to Satan once. He says in verse 14 that the sower is sowing the Word, and then in verse 15 he says, "These are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them."
But there are two other kinds of soil where the Word bears no fruit. There is the rocky ground in verse 16 and the thorny ground in verse 18. Jesus doesn't mention Satan in connection with these. But we know from other teachings in the New Testament that Satan is very much at work in these soils to nullify the Word of God and make the hearers fruitless. So there are really three strategies (at least!) by which Satan takes away the Word. Let's look at each briefly.
1. Immediately—with Inattention, Ill-Will, or Ignorance
In verse 15 it says that he does it immediately. He does it before there is any sympathetic response at all. "Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them." I can think of at least three ways this happens. It happens through people's inattention, ill-will, or ignorance.
Satan works overtime to keep people from giving serious attention to the Word of God. He may keep you up late Saturday night so that you can't stay awake during the sermon or Sunday School. He may put a dozen different distractions around you in the service to take your mind away from the message. He may send thoughts into your mind about tomorrow's meeting with your supervisor. If he can only distract you so that the sounds coming out of the preacher's mouth go in one ear and out the other, he will have successfully taken away the Word of God and made it ineffectual for you. Inattention is his game.
He also uses ill-will. He causes feelings of aversion to block the Word. These feelings might be against the preacher or against his language or simply against the truths of the gospel. People may hear and understand exactly what is being said, but despise it. Paul said the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. Satan works to maintain their worldly sense of values so that the value of the death of Christ is as nothing. Satan gives people such a high estimation of themselves that the evangelical message of brokenness before the cross for our sin is disgusting and threatening. So the Word of God gains no foothold. Satan takes it away.
Satan also uses ignorance. The work of Satan can be so thorough that his servants can actually lose the capacity to grasp what is being said well enough even to get angry about it. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:3–4, "Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God." When the glory of God is described, Satan blinds the eyes of his people so that they wonder what in the world is going on when spiritual people are deeply affected by this glory. Thus Satan takes away the Word of God.
2. Eventually—with Shallow Soil and Persecution
But Satan's battle against the Word is not just directed against that first hearing of the Word. Even after a person has heard the Word and received it with joy, Satan does his best to take it away and bring the person to fruitlessness and ruin. Verses 16–17 describe this attack. "And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away."
The reason I feel confident in saying that this too is the work of Satan, even though Jesus doesn't mention him here, is that persecution is mentioned and this is a key strategy of Satan elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, when Paul heard that the Thessalonian Christians were being persecuted, he chalked it up to the devil and said, "For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent that I might know your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor would be in vain." It's clear that Paul saw persecution as a work of Satan that could destroy the gospel labor he had expended. In other words, the Word could be taken away.
Just because Satan is not able to keep everyone from responding joyfully to the Word of God, doesn't mean he gives up on those people. He brings many of them to ruin by keeping their soil shallow and battering them with hard times so that they fall for the lie that the Word of God is not worth the trouble it brings. And so Satan takes away the Word of God even after it has gained a little toehold.
3. Eventually—with Prosperity
If persecution doesn't look like it will work, Satan will try prosperity. This is his third strategy for taking away the Word and making people fruitless. Verses 18–19 describe this strategy: "And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the deceit of riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful."
Ephesians 2:2–3 teaches that when people follow Satan they are not dragged along against their desires, but are giving in to their ungodly desires. Satan takes away the Word by making us feel that if we hold fast to the Word, we will have to give up something better. He is the great deceiver. And in America he majors not on soil 2 but on soil 3. He doesn't snatch the Word as much by the threat of persecution as by the deceptive promise that things will go better if you don't get fanatical about the Word of God. And so thousands of people who had made a start with the Word of God give in to his lies and have the Word choked out of their lives.
Summary of Satan's Three Strategies
In summary, Satan has three strategies to take away the Word of God.
- First, he often acts immediately as soon as the Word is heard to make people inattentive, or cause them to feel ill-will, or to simply be so ignorant of spiritual reality they can't grasp what's being said.
- Second, he comes in after the Word has been received with joy and attacks it with hard times. He convinces some that holding fast to the Word is not worth the trouble.
- Third, he comes in where the Word has begun to take root and strangles it with the lie that too many good things are being sacrificed.
Three Ways to Combat Satan's First Strategy
It should be obvious from these strategies of Satan that we must be prepared to give some serious counter thrusts. James 4:7 says, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you." 1 Peter 5:8 says, "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith."
We only have time to deal with Satan's first strategy. But if you successfully counter his attack here, you will probably defeat him later, too. So let me suggest three ways to resist Satan's efforts to defeat the Word of God as you hear it.
1. Prepare the Soil of Your Heart
Verse 20 says that good soil is the key to a fruitful hearing of the Word. I have said it several times before and no doubt will again: devote some time Saturday night and Sunday morning to prepare your heart for hearing the Word of God. The more you take time to humble yourself and purify your heart in prayer and tune the receiver of your mind into the wavelength of Christ, the more powerfully you will hear the Word and the more deeply you will worship.
Don't play into the hands of Satan by staying up so late Saturday night that you can't stay awake in worship or in Sunday School. He constantly lies to you telling you that what you're doing at 10:00 Saturday night is more important than being rested to give your best ear to God's Word on Sunday morning.
Don't play into the hands of Satan by letting the newspaper set the agenda of your Sunday morning meditation. Read a Psalm and pray that God meet you in worship as he never has before.
I believe that if we as a church formed the habit of conscientiously preparing our hearts for hearing God's Word, the Lord might speak with such power that amazing changes would come into our lives for God's glory and for our joy. So let's resolve to take time for meditation and prayer and solitude and quiet walks in the snow, so that the soil of our heart is plowed deep for the Word of God.
2. Listen with All Your Might to the Word of God
And remember, the Word is in the hymns and in the anthem and in the prayers and often in the organ, not just in the sermon.
Focusing attention on the Word of God is hard work for us sinners. Add to that Satan's opposition to your attention! If we come with no resolve to work at listening and fight against Satan, we will be fair game for the birds along the path. They will pluck up the seed and we will leave week after week with no power to bear fruit.
Focus on the content of the worship folder during the prelude. Focus on the words of the call to worship and the prayers and the hymns. Focus on God during the organ praise and the moment for meditation. Pray to God whenever there is a non-directed moment. Go hard after God. Don't coast in worship. Again and again Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Strive to have those ears and not to be among those who hearing do not hear and seeing do not see.
3. In the Act of Hearing, Welcome the Word of God
Verse 20 says, "But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." All the attention in the world will be of no avail if the message heard from God is rejected.
So set your mind to be open to the Word of God, even if it is new or demanding. This doesn't mean listening uncritically. Jesus didn't want mindless acquiescence. Neither do I. The admonition is this: when the word of Scripture stands forth plainly, welcome it. Have a receptive attitude, not a resistant one. Love the Word of God. Be like a miser in search of gold and silver. Snatch up the Word of God as precious pearls.
Be like rich black Minnesota farmland, deeply plowed, free of thorns, free of rocks, moist from the rains of the Spirit, and then receive the power-packed seed of the Word of God. And this church will overflow with fruit—thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. May the Lord destroy the work of the devil and make us a fruitful people by his Word.